Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 15, 2018
Acts 3:12-19 Commentary
When our family visited China a number of years ago, my wife had a hard time keeping up with our sons who all stand over 6 feet 4 inches tall. So we’d often walk a few steps behind them. As we did so, we lost count of how many people passed them, turned around and then just boldly stared at our tall sons.
That didn’t surprise our son who told us that in his experience as a teacher in China, Chinese people generally have little compunction about staring at people. Yet those stares did surprise us. After all, our parents and society had taught that it’s impolite to stare at people. We were taught when when we feel the need to gawk, we should our best to mask our stares.
Yet it seems as if a lot of people do a lot of bold staring at each other in Acts 3. After all, verse 4 reports that Peter “looks straight at,” literally “stares at” the man who has never been able to walk. In verse 5 we read that that man “gave [the apostles] his attention,” literally “stared at them.” And verse 12 adds that people “stared at” Peter and John.
While the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday doesn’t actually begin until Acts 3:12, its preachers and teachers will want to at least summarize its first 11 verses’ context. It, after all, helps explain just why so many people stare at Peter and John.
Those apostles haven’t yet separated themselves from their Jewish community. So they probably join other faithful Jews in praying as often as three times a day in Jerusalem’s temple. On one of their afternoon trips, Peter and John meet a man who’s never been able to walk. Every day his friends or family members bring him to sit at a temple gate called Beautiful. There he waits for people to drop a few copper coins in his lap as they clamber over him in order to enter the temple to pray.
This man who’s physically impaired begs Peter and John for money. Since he assumes the best he can hope for is a handout, he may even stretch out his hand toward the apostles. When Peter answers, “I don’t even have a nickel to my name,” the beggar’s outstretched hand may turn into a fist as he mutters, “Just another tightwad believer!”
The man who is physically impaired may even turn his head to look for the next person from whom to beg. Peter’s words, however, probably turn his head right back. “I’ll give you what I do have,” the apostle announces. “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!”
Money is a source of controversy throughout the book of Acts. A church community that shares everything with its members doesn’t seem to have much gold or silver left over to share with outsiders. Yet God has generously given the apostles what was a source of contention for Jesus: the power to heal people.
So Peter can grab the hand of the man who’s never been able to walk and tug him up off his mat. The man who’d never been able to walk then walks, runs and jumps through the temple. He goes from lying helpless and dependent outside the temple to dancing and praising God inside it.
When Jesus commissioned his twelve disciples, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and cure diseases. In a similar way, while Jesus’ first followers may not have much “silver and gold,” they do have the power to heal in Jesus Christ’s name.
Evidence of the power God gives to the disciples to heal the man who is physically disabled draws a lot of attention to them. Just as Peter, John and the man who couldn’t walk had earlier stared at each other, now people come running to stare at them. The man who couldn’t walk stared at them because he expected nothing more from them than anyone else had ever given him. His neighbors now stare at the apostles because they’ve given that man more than he or anyone else could have expected.
However, Peter and John don’t try to turn their newfound fame into a spot on some kind of ancient reality TV show. After all, neither Peter nor John nor even the man they’ve just healed are Acts’ story. Even the man the apostles heal seems to understand that. Acts 3:8 reports that after he is healed, after all, he walks into the temple courts, “walking, and jumping and praising [not Peter and John, but] God.”
Peter and John deflect all the attention onto Jesus Christ by begging people to receive God’s grace with their faith in him. They essentially tell those whom their healing has drawn to them to stop staring at them and start faithfully staring at “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers” (13).
Yet what Peter says about their relationship to God is blunt and potentially damning. It’s yet another example of how, as Will Willimon writes (Acts: John Knox Press, p. 46), there’s “no substitutional atonement in Luke, no notion that Jesus Christ had to die to satisfy some divine requirement of justice. No, the explanation for Jesus’ death in Acts is simply human perversity” (italics added).
Those who preach and teach Acts 3 may want to imagine just what tone Peter uses to describe that perversity. Does he thunder at his audience? Does Peter speak with a voice that quavers with sadness? That decision will in some ways shape how we present its meaning.
“You handed [Jesus] over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go” (italics added), we hear Peter tell the people who stare at him in verses 12-15. “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life” (italics added).
We generally assume that Peter addresses this to a group of people who are Jewish. He, after all, speaks to people who come running to him from the area near Jerusalem’s temple. On top of that, the apostle speaks of the “God of our fathers.”
We’ve even sometimes used Peter’s accusation of culpability for Jesus’ crucifixion to justify persecuting Jewish people. Yet while Christians have historically often blamed solely Jewish people for this treachery, the Scriptures insist that all of us, gentile and Jewish, somehow share culpability for it. So it’s biblical to imagine Peter also saying to modern gentiles who preach, teach and hear Acts 3, “We handed Jesus over to be killed and we disowned him. We asked that a murderer be released to us and that the author of life be killed.”
Yet Acts 3 also insists that our murderous treachery doesn’t get the last word. “You,” says Peter, “killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.” In doing so, he underlines the stark difference between and God and the crowd’s actions. Peter even highlights the way God used human treachery to fulfill what God “had foretold through all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer” (18).
Peter links the God of Israel’s ancestors to Jesus Christ in ways many of his Jewish contemporaries fiercely rejected. He insists it’s “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers” who “glorified his servant Jesus.” (13). It’s the kind of bold testimony that will get the apostles vigorously persecuted and, in at least some cases, executed.
God, insists the apostle, graciously met human rejection with divine acceptance. God responded to human violence with the gift of life. God met human murder with divine resurrection. God, quite simply, met human perversity with divine grace.
And what, according to not just Peter but also all of the Scriptures, is the most appropriate response to that gift of life and healing? Repentance. In swapping the life-giving Jesus for the death-dealing Barabbas, we chose the way of death. God, however, through Peter, invites us to turn away from that way of death and toward the way of life that is faith in Jesus Christ.
The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday essentially ends with Peter’s call to repentance. On pages 38-39 of his classic Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes to our desperate need for is: “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who needs to lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the right one—that is the only way out of our ‘hole.’
Lewis also describes what turning toward God looks like: “This process of surrender is what Christians call ‘repentance.’ Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves in for thousands of years. It means killing a part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact it needs a good person to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly.”
Lewis goes on to describe Christ’s work: “He could surrender his will, and suffer and die, because he was man; and he could do it perfectly because he was God.” In commenting on this, Neal Plantinga notes that we surrender, repent, only by sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection, just as we are intelligent or wise only by sharing in God’s intelligence and wisdom.
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